Tuesday, December 29, 2009

“When I put the flower near your eyes, they twinkle again”
~8 year-old boy to his mother on her birthday. The mother was recovering from severe depression.

Where does the gaze fall? What do I see? What makes me twinkle inside? What repels me?

The eyes are the window to the soul, but so too are they the soul’s window onto the world.

I can perceive the world as harsh and grasping, like it could eat me up or skin me alive, and then feel compelled to turn away from it. But the world has no claws. Really, when I feel this way, it is aversion that has taken hold of me from the inside. When I recoil from phenomena, when I avert my gaze, in fact I turn my soul upon its own darkness. That is why introversion (or perhaps more aptly extro-aversion), in the extreme, can lead to depression.

I can perceive the world as the source of love and light and inspiration, but be prone to covet and consume what it proffers as “good”. Yet I cannot assimilate things which are not things, and grasping them just extinguishes their flame. Now it is attraction which has got hold of me and my soul has come to feel like a desert. Ths is why extroversion (intro-aversion), in the extreme, can lead to addiction, even when the quest for an oasis can have every appearance of selflessness.

There are more benign forms of introversion and extroversion, but doesn’t every point on the continuum between the extremes fail in some way to secure a fit between me and the world?

I know a shy adolescent girl who is an avid reader and has brilliant insights into the books she reads, but because she is unable to translate her ideas from verbal to written form, her English grades are mediocre when they could be exceptional. I experience a similarly difficult transition when I wake up in the morning. When my eyes are closed, my mind is quite clear and creative, but the minute I open my eyes and sit up, poof! like mist in the sun, any thoughts dissipate completely. So many good ideas— exiled forever to the land of missing socks.

When we remain responsive, aware and awake to what's going on inside and out, the effects can be transformative, as in analysis, EMDR or meditation. Closed eyes and a reclining position facilitate free association,a kind of mental opening to emotional material. This is why analysts have people lie on the couch, I suppose. It loosens the mind during verbalization. EMDR and some forms of meditation, on the contrary, are done sitting up and with the eyes open. This grounds a person against the destabilizing effect of the thoughts and emotions that can arise during stillness and silence.

Neither introverted nor extroverted-- what shall we call the mind’s eye when the whole surface of its mirroring orb is engaged as reflection? Is it the activation of both cerebral hemispheres, is it “dual attention”, simultaneously gazing inward and outward, or on the edge of both, linking creative hypnagogic states to lucidity, energy to inertia, emotion to cognition? Is it the synthesis of opposites or is it beyond duality? Something else completely?

Like a tent drawn upright by being pulled equally in opposite directions, the mind becomes taut, erect, spacious, stable.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sure on this shining night
Of starmade shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.

The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth,
Hearts all whole.

Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder
Wandering far alone
Of shadows on the stars.

~Description of Elysium
James Agee

A lot of people I met with this week were struggling due to a current or impending separation from a loved one. Some were anxious to move on, others were grieving the absence of the familiar, still others were in limbo, numb and bored but unable to take the next step. Everyone expressed dissatisfaction with being in transition.

Change is hard. Even positive change. It reminds us that nothing remains the same and challenges our inflexible pattern-driven need for stability. Change cuts to the heart of the human condition: the thwarted desire for unity with something beyond… just this.

During transitions, we become aware of being like trapeze artists trying to manage the leap between two ropes, “here” and “there”. If you hold onto the first rope too long, it goes flaccid. If you let it go too soon, you end up twisting in mid-air with no future. If you indulge nostalgia and look back, you may regret it forever. Results in all cases aren’t pretty and may even be tragic (or comic!, depending).

We aspire to govern ourselves in all situations with elegance, that is, by thinking, feeling and doing the “right” thing. This is expressed by Buddha in the Noble Eightfold Path, and by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. Doing the “right” thing in this sense means responding to our circumstances “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right manner.” (Aristotle)

Right action does not refer to what is morally right but, rather, to what is fitting in response to any given situation. This is the path, but what is the way?

The true trapeze artist is a master of timing and seemless transitions, appearing to do nothing and go nowhere. He becomes stillness in motion, vigilance at rest. Gradually, by just passing through, heads up and hearts open, maybe we too can aspire to this. Change is an opportunity to practice becoming better disposed toward our circumstances, remaining poised to eventually engage them, gracefully.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Every man has his own courage, and is betrayed because he seeks in himself the courage of other persons.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

A seven year-old boy and his mother came to me for help. The boy was being regularly suspended from school for disruptive behavior. His poor mother was at her wits’ end. “I am all out of punishments,” she said hopelessly, and the boy cried, “I have nothing to play with anymore”. He threw himself on the floor, sobbing. “You’ve lost heart,” I said, and asked the mother to think of some ways her son could earn back his toys.

The next week the boy said he had had a great week, and had earned back all of his toys. His mother shrugged and happily nodded. “So, what did you do differently?” I asked. “Nothing,” said the boy, “you encouraged me.”

The boy’s humility both touched and disturbed me. It touched me because he did not take credit for his success, but it disturbed me because his courage was experienced as originating outside of himself.

The tendency to assume that others can actually encourage us, can impart courage to us from outside, is common but, I think, misguided. Like other states of mind, courage may arise in a context in which it is a response to another person, but can it really come about through "encouragement" from someone else?

It is hard not to reduce human reactions to dyadic or relational events, especially when there is so much evidence confirming the evolution of human development in terms of affect co-regulation. If you observed mother-child interactions frame by frame, you would actually be able to track their nonverbal and direct communication as co-arising, right brain to right brain, heart to heart. Allan Schore calls this “affect synchrony”. On this model, the bloom of a baby’s blissful smile is considered to be the expression of a moment of attunement between him and his mother. When the baby’s gaze alights upon her face and she is attuned to his resonance frequency, there is synchronicity and the “loop” between them amplifies their shared energy. This is beautiful. The same synchrony could, I suppose, be measured when a child displays courage, for instance, when he takes his first steps.

A relational model of affect is surely an improvement on the old intrapsychic model, according to which mental states arise in a kind of relational vacuum. However, a smile, courage, love… they also seem to me to be pulled from somewhere beyond relationship, as though they had been waiting for the right conditions as an opportunity to come out, like stars in the sky.

In a dyadic explanation of experience that credits another as the necessary complement to our internal life, aren't we still at risk of reducing the human mystery to yet another closed system?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Everyday objects define who we are by what we do,
And how we use them or refuse them is an act of freedom.
Knowing ourselves in this connection, heaven and earth meet
And the past, present and future come undone like a braid loosened by the fingers of presence.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

“Desire is man’s very essence”
Benedictus de Spinoza (Ethics III, proposition 95)

Contemporary neuroscientific findings confirm both that we are hard-wired like other animals to attach to and care for other members of our species, and that the foundation of human empathy resides in early attachment relationships. Simply put, a child who is held and loved by a mother whose heart connects to his will grow a heart able to connect with others’. He will have also developed, within his brain, the capacity to know another as a real and vital complement to himself. His emotions will reflect this inner wealth and he will seek the world as a place to be nurtured and a place to nurture others.

These findings echo what Spinoza observed three hundred and fifty years ago in his famous Ethics: human beings are naturally inclined toward society and to becoming virtuous citizens[i].

It is not against self-interest, but through our very desire for attachment to others, that we cultivate the emotions that cement reciprocity, friendship and love, the ingredients of an interpersonal ethics of responsibility, compassion and care.

With human psychology providing the basis for love and empathy, morality and religion become superfluous add-ons to a humanistic ethics based in immanence. The conflation of virtue with obedience to a transcendent “good” is at best a back-up plan for an anthropologically-based ethics, a back-up we could surely use in the case of those who require emotionally empty obligations to bind them to others, a chilly duty without which, who knows what they would be capable of.

As Robert Misrahi points out, the foundation of real virtue is no other than human desire itself, not a moral imperative or an applied “pseudo-knowledge of values”[ii]. We are “just” self-centered beings oriented toward others for reasons of survival. Not earth-shattering. Glorious…

[i] See Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza
[ii] Robert Misrahi Spinoza, editions Médicis-Entrelacs, Paris, 2005, p.97.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

As awake compassion, you experience no separation. You know that the apparent division of experience between "I" and "the world" is a misperception and that even the subtlest sense of superiority is a further delusion.
Ken McLeod

Compassion arises in a context of non-attachment, when we have no expectations of reciprocity and it is not about me. As a therapist, as a mother, or even with a total stranger on the street, it is relatively easy to be compassionate in this way. I have all the power, and nothing is at stake for me personally[1].

But when I am in a friendship or love relationship, there is a me and there is a you. Necessarily, there is duality, because we are rooted in a personal connection. Naturally, these relationships activate attachment needs and all the other stuff that goes along with wanting to transcend separation in an embodied way. This is not to say that each person cannot be compassionately awake to the other; separation need not imply falling asleep, or the will to power. On the contrary, each person in an equal partnership has the ability to be awake. The question is how to be awake and act from a place of attachment at the same time.

Compassion becomes particularly problematic when we are both in pain and when the remedy for my pain is the opposite of yours, when, for example, I need closeness and you need distance. I may respond to your withdrawal with approaching you, but this is because of my own need for closeness. You may respond to my need for closeness with detachment, but this is because of your own need for distance. Neither is a compassionate response to the other but an attachment-based reaction, sometimes even obscured to oneself because of one's feeling compassionate. In fact, each often becomes quite defensive about his or her reaction to the other.

So the question is:
How, from a perspective of non-attachment, do you and I remain awake in relationship?

[1] Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship is like this. Thou is not an object, but neither is it you per se. It is an aspect of, “the face of”, God.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What is it to fall in love?

A delusion of attachment? The ego grasping like a babe from the womb, reaching out anxiously primed by the presence of the other beyond knowing, activating the life-sustaining startle and arch of human biology. The Moro reflex and will to live.

A spiritual connection? The stirring of the immortal soul implanted in the body’s fertile ground that, upon finding the sun and rain in the face of another, dares to live as a tender shoot in the empirical world.

Self-transcendence? The grace of compassion, the heart of hearts abiding in every man standing at the threshold of emptiness, our sacred inheritance when the space between subject and object collapses into nothing.

And what then, of love?

The reflex calls for maternal care.

The connection dissolves into knowing.

The transcendence cannot sustain itself and loses itself to find itself again and again, as simply nothing.

Qu’est-ce que tomber amoureux?
Un délire d’attachement? L’ego comme un nouveau-né sorti du ventre de sa mère qui s’empoigne anxieusement de l’autre, excité par la présence au-delà du connaître suscitant le sursaut et l’arche de la survie. Le réflexe de Moro et la volonté d’exister.
Un contacte spirituel? L’éveil de l’âme immortelle implantée dans le sol fertile du corps qui, ayant trouvé le soleil et la pluie dans le visage de l’autre, ose percer comme une tendre pousse le monde empirique.
La transcendance? La grâce de la compassion au coeur du coeur sachant demeurer au seuil du néant, notre héritage sacré quand l’espace entre sujet et objet s’effondre.
Et l’amour, alors?
Le réflexe appelle les soins maternels.
Le contacte se dissout dans la connaissance.
La transcendance ne peut se s’alimenter et se perd pour se retrouver encore et encore tout simplement: rien.